There are nights where the Slam Dunk atmosphere lacks a buzz, as if folks are still nursing full stomachs from one-too-many helpings at Christmas dinner. (Yes, you could say there were a couple earlier this week.) But if local fans are smart – and I think they are – tonight should be something different altogether.
The County Center will play host to a great slate of games today, particularly the last three. They alone are worth the price of admission.
At 3, Peekskill will take on a South Shore team with one of the state’s top duos, highlighted by UConn-bound Terrence Samuel, one of the city’s biggest stars. At 5, Ossining and Irvington will follow in a game that features the area’s top two girls programs and three Division I-bound stars, including the brightest of them all and one of the east coast’s best players, Saniya Chong, fresh off a 46-point night.
The nightcap is intriguing as well. Stepinac and New Rochelle are two of the area’s Top 5 boys basketball programs yet they have not met since 2005, the year Geoff McDermott, Ray Rice and Terrence Parkes led the school to a Class AA title and an appearance against Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris and Niagara Falls in the state final.
They’ll meet again — almost eight years later — tonight at 7. So, let’s take a crack at breaking down the matchup and picking a winner for the last act of a 20-game tournament that has gotten better and better…
Stepinac (8-1) vs. New Rochelle (2-4)
When: Tonight, 7
Where: County Center, White Plains
Key players: Stepinac — Josh James (6-1), Sr., G; Andrew Murray (6-3), Sr., F; James Decker (6-1), Sr., F; Naim Thomas (5-9), Jr., G; Demarcus Miller (6-1), So., G/F; Walter King (5-11), Sr., G. New Rochelle — Joe Clarke (6-3), Sr., F; Derek Dorn (6-0), Jr., G; Terrence Holden (6-2), Sr., F; Khalil Edney (6-4), Sr., F; Donny Powell (5-10), Sr., G; Antoine Lewis (6-2), So., G/F.
Key matchup: New Rochelle’s backcourt vs. Stepinac’s ball pressure. The Crusaders are undersized, but there goal is to prevent opponents from attempting shots, limiting second chances indirectly by limiting your first shots instead. It has been effective during their strong start. That will put pressure on the likes of Dorn and Powell to handle the aggressiveness of Stepinac’s defense and push the ball ahead. If New Ro can beat the press, it can and will finish. Clarke may be the county’s most gifted finisher and Edney has emerged alongside him as a serious wild card.
Breakdown: Before Friday night, New Rochelle appeared to be the inferior team in every way, but the Huguenots changed the opinions of many with their impressive 71-64 victory over a strong St. Mary’s team that nearly knocked off CHSAA power Bishop Loughlin earlier this month. What New Ro proved was that you can’t judge a team by its record. But what it did to win was exactly what it had accomplished in that ultimately futile comeback against Iona Prep last week. The Huguenots used their strength, athleticism and experience to cause a younger team to crack under pressure.
Stepinac has plenty of youth in its rotation, but the majority of its key players have been there plenty before and against teams superior to New Ro. James, Decker, Murray and Thomas all played big minutes against city powers like Christ the King, St. Ray’s, Cardinal Hayes and Mount St. Michael since Stepinac joined the league’s top division last season. But the Crusaders will need to keep more than their composure to withstand a bigger, more physical New Rochelle team. They will need to force mistakes and make shots. The Huguenots will earn an advantage on the glass, but Stepinac has the superior skill.
Prediction: The outcome will be all about braun vs. bounce and Stepinac is a handful off the dribble. I love the intensity and urgency New Ro showed Friday night. I think it proved the Huguenots will get better and better as they learn to play together under first-year coach Rasaun Young. But, right now, the Crusaders can play a good game and win. New Ro will have to play great — again. Stepinac 69, New Rochelle 64